Story & Photos By Margaret Marshall
In 1781, Thomas Jefferson finished the first edition of Notes on the State of Virginia, the 23-chapter book in which he aimed to answer every type of question about the new commonwealth. But though he eloquently detailed everything from its elk to its economy, one feature of our home left Jefferson at a loss for words. “It is impossible for the emotions arising from the sublime, to be felt beyond what they are here,” he wrote. “So beautiful an arch, so elevated, so light, and springing as it were up to heaven, the rapture of the spectator is really indescribable!” You can find that word-defying, heaven-springing sublimity still today: it’s the Natural Bridge, and it’s only an hour away.
A few miles off Interstate 81 at exit 175 in Rockbridge County (whose name makes sense to me now), Natural Bridge captivated Jefferson so much that he bought it, paying King George III 20 shillings for 157 acres including the Bridge in 1774. But Jefferson wasn’t the only one to be smitten with and inspired by Natural Bridge. George Washington surveyed the land on behalf of Lord Fairfax in 1750, and you can see the initials “G.W.” he allegedly felt moved to carve into the rock after scaling the cliff about 20 feet above the creek. Hudson River School artist Frederic Edwin Church painted it in 1852, and Herman Melville used it as a simile for the whale in Moby Dick in 1851. It’s no wonder the Romantics loved it so much, because it really is what Jefferson said: sublime.
But don’t take anyone else’s word for it—even Jefferson’s. You need to see Natural Bridge for yourself. Head west on 64, then south on 81, and get off on Route 11 S. Route 11 actually goes over Natural Bridge, though you won’t realize you’re motoring over a National Historic Landmark. The Bridge is so vast that the trees growing atop it mask the fact that you’re 215 feet over a creek.
As soon as you open the doors to the Visitor’s Center, you’ll be swallowed into an immense gift shop selling everything from T-shirts to tea sets, but don’t lose heart! The site’s commercial aspect may be cheesy, but its natural one is awesome. After you pay your $18 admission fee (kids ages 7-17 are only $10, and anyone 6 or younger is free; there are also discounts for AAA members and military personnel, so bring your ID cards), you’ll exit downstairs, where they have an indoor playground and cute learning stations set up for children.
The real fun begins back outside, though. The walk to the Bridge begins with a descent down 137 steps beside a burbling stream, slipping over mossy rocks and passing by stunning arbor vitae, giant ancient trees whose trunks twist upwards out of sight. A sign memorializes one that died several years ago at age 1,600! At the bottom of the stairs, there’s a pavilion where a friendly attendant will check your ticket and direct you to the Cedar Creek Trail.
As soon as you turn the corner, you’ll see the Bridge looming ahead. I understand why Jefferson had to resort to describing it as indescribable. The Bridge’s height and mass is so staggering, and yet its shape so graceful and dynamic—there’s no way to understand how something so heavy can feel so light unless you’re standing beneath it. It’s a not just a natural bridge; it’s a natural cathedral. The light streams around it, illuminating the gray-green creek that created this cavern over millions of years, and the cool, damp air in the cliff’s shadow seems sacred. We visited at 7 p.m., only an hour before closing (the site is open from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. daily), and stood in the silence simply trying to absorb the awesome.
Eventually, though, we kept walking. The Cedar Creek Trail continues for about three-quarters of a mile along the stream, and you should definitely walk the entire thing. It’s a well-maintained, fine gravel path that’s almost entirely flat, and while comfy shoes are recommended, there’s no need for any special footwear or clothing. The whole place is dream for anyone interested in local history or in native plants and animals. We met a courteous rat snake on our way, as well a common skink, and my friend was thrilled to spot a white cedar tree. Besides creating the Natural Bridge, Cedar Creek has also created—and is still creating—other really interesting geological features, including a saltpeter cave you can walk up to but not into. During the War of 1812 and the Civil War, soldiers made gunpowder inside it from mined nitrates and guano. There’s also a recreation of a Monacan village, where you can watch interpreters put on demonstrations, or, when that’s not happening, read all about the daily life of the Indians who discovered the Bridge long before Jefferson bought it.
At the trail’s end, you reach Lace Falls, where water whose source is too high to see cascades over a boulder, creating sheets of liquid lace that dissolve into a deep pool. A rock wall that borders the entire trail prevents visitors from climbing into the creek (we were sorely tempted because it looked so cool on the muggy summer evening), but just looking at it felt refreshing.
You retrace your steps to come back to the Bridge, and we were delighted and amazed all over again approaching it from the opposite side. The whole walk, with plenty of time to stop and take pictures and read signs and sit and sigh, took us about an hour. At a busier time of day, I can imagine that crowds might obscure the magic a little, but at that evening hour, we passed fewer than a dozen people on the path, and all of them, as well as the two attendants we met, seemed as happy to be there as we were.
The Bridge alone is worth the drive to Rockbridge County, but to make more of a day of the adventure, you could combine Natural Bridge with a trip to Virginia Safari Park, only three miles down the road, where you can see tigers and feed giraffes and marvel at all sorts of other exotic creatures from your car as you drive through the park’s 180 acres. The drive through Safari Park might be a nice complement to the walk along Cedar Creek.
In May of this year, Governor McAuliffe received the deed to Natural Bridge, which will become a state park in the next year or two. The former owner, Angelo Puglisi, gave the Bridge and 188 accompanying acres to the state, a gift valued at $21 million. 20 shillings or 21 million dollars: neither assessment matters.
When you stand under Natural Bridge, you’ll know it’s priceless.